Turkey’s long-awaited operation to “eliminate all terrorist elements” in the Afrin district in Syria’s northwest, called “Operation Olive Branch,” started at around 5 p.m. on Jan. 20 with Turkish air forces striking targets across the region. This is Turkey’s fourth military operation in Syria since the start of a civil war there in 2011.
Operation Shah-Euphrates took place on Feb. 22, 2015 to extract 38 soldiers guarding the historical Tomb of Suleiman Shah, besieged by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) militants. The Euphrates Shield Operation was launched on Aug. 24, 2016 to drive ISIL militants from the Turkish border. The move into Idlib province on Oct. 7, 2017 to set up observation areas to monitor the de-escalation zone, created as part of the Astana Process, was the third military incursion into Syria. All aimed to curb existing threats to Turkey’s security by creating de-facto secure zones under its control.
The latest operation is more directly related to its long-term threat perception from the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which benefitted from the Syrian civil war and the rise of ISIL in Iraq and Syria to expand its areas of operation into these countries with support from the U.S. under the pretext of fighting against ISIL in the region. In fact, the PKK-affiliated Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), have become de-facto ground forces for the U.S.’s efforts to fight ISIL since autumn 2015. With the addition of some Arab fighters, it was renamed as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in October 2015 to overcome Turkey’s objections to U.S. cooperation with PKK affiliates. It has received substantial military aid from the U.S., capturing around a quarter of Syrian territory along Turkey’s southern border.
With experience gained from fighting with the PKK for four decades inside and outside its borders, Turkey has acutely been aware of its ability to adapt to changing security conditions and benefit emerging from power vacuums in the wider region. In fact, the PKK has shown its versatility since the Arab Spring by becoming operative in four separate operation areas under diverse names with different partners toward various ends. As its assorted affiliates have developed capabilities with U.S. training and support, Turkey’s concerns for possible usage of these capabilities against Turkey after the end of the Syrian conflict has also increased. The latest straw for Turkey was the announcement that the U.S. would now turn the SDF forces into a 30,000-strong Border Security Force.
The declared aim of “Operation Olive Branch” is to establish a safe zone inside Afrin region, linking it with the previously created safe zone in northern Syria with the Euphrates Shield Operation, and also with Turkey’s monitoring centers in Idlib province.
While informing all related parties before launching the operation, Turkey since then stressed that it is taking place in line with the self-defense clause of the U.N. Charter as well as U.N. Security Council resolutions of 1624, 2170 and 2178. There is a clear effort to keep the interested countries informed. So far, it seems that the diplomacy offensive is working as good as the military one, as most international actors have acknowledged Turkey’s legitimate security concerns and have been willing to give time to Turkey.
Although Russian support has been more critical as it has been controlling the airspace over Syria and because of its influence over the Syrian government, the supportive tone adapted by several western European countries as well as NATO have been important for Turkey’s long-term alliance connections. The U.S., too, clearly distanced itself from the Afrin region and warned the SDF against moving toward Afrin.
This positive international atmosphere would not continue forever and could turn against Turkey if the operation prolongs, expands beyond Afrin, or results in civilian casualties. Thus, Turkey needs to continue to pay close attention to international public opinion, and constantly explain what is happening in Afrin and its surroundings.